It’s a situation not many teams get to experience.
But after sweeping through the Mid-Continent Conference tournament, the 1997-1998 Youngstown State University women’s basketball team found itself as part of Selection Sunday for the NCAA Tournament.
“It was just so cool to be sitting in a room with all the media and to know you’re going to be going somewhere,” said former Penguins guard Colleen Cook.
In part two of the Penguins historic 1997-1998 season in which they went 28-3 and captured the school’s only-ever NCAA Tournament victory, Cook and fellow senior starters Shannon Beach, Caroline McCombs, Teresita Jones and Ann Marie Martin — as well as head coach Ed DiGregorio — relive their March Madness run.
YSU earned a 12-seed in the NCAA Tournament and drew fifth-seeded University of Memphis in the first round at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, NC. The Tigers were 22-8 and champions of Conference USA.
Beach: We were all really excited we were ranked number 12. But in all honesty, we felt like we should have been higher.
Martin: We liked our matchup with Memphis. Coach D went out of his way — we were watching film of Memphis playing Tennessee. We were like ‘Are you kidding me?’ but he was like ‘Look, we can play with this team, trust me.’
McCombs: Since we had been there before, we had a lot of confidence. That’s something that Coach D always gave us. It wasn’t about just getting to the tournament anymore. We wanted to win a game. It didn’t matter who we played against, we were just looking to make some noise.
On March 13 — a day before YSU would square-off with Memphis — the Penguins watched the first round of the men’s NCAA Tournament in their hotel. Together, they witnessed Valparaiso University’s Bryce Drew hit a buzzer-beating 3-pointer as the 13-seed Crusaders upset fourth-seeded Ole Miss.
Cook: We were like ‘Oh my gosh they did it! We can do the same thing!’ That was fun since we were the girls coming out of the same conference.
McCombs: That added some motivation and some fuel to just go in there and do something that people didn’t think we could do. Watching Drew hit that shot, we knew going into the game that it was possible since they had just done it.
The next day, March 14, YSU defeated Memphis 91-80 to capture the school’s first-ever NCAA Tournament victory. Martin led the way with 26 points, while Jones added 20.
Martin: Going into it, I remember being really nervous, but then looking to the stands and seeing this big contingent of fans there from YSU — like 500 or 600 people. Coach [Jim] Tressel was there, Dr. [Tom] Shipka and some other professors.
Beach: I just remember the intense energy we had and pressing them. The energy level from start to finish, it never ended.
DiGregorio: They had two all-Americans. [LaTonya] Johnson, she was their outside player, about 6-foot-1. Then [Tamika Whitmore], she played with New York in the WNBA and was a star in that league for 10 years. She got 38 points, but we shut out Johnson.
Jones: I fouled out near the end and it was like ‘We just have a few more minutes, they can do it!’ It actually brought me to tears because if we didn’t win after I fouled out, that would be it for me and us. So those last few minutes were very exciting, but my heart was racing.
Martin: The feeling was amazing, hard to describe. You feel like you’ve accomplished so much because this is what you set out to accomplish and you actually did it. It’s just something that you never forget.
The Penguins then matched-up with site-host NC State in the second round on March 15. Martin and McCombs were previously AAU teammates with the Wolfpack’s 6-foot-6 All-American center Summer Erb. YSU fell to Erb and NC State, 88-61, as its season came to an end.
Jones: Pure intimidation. These women were the biggest we ever played. They started playing mind games with us in the training room before the game, already saying they were going to the Sweet 16, that they had their home crowd. All that.
Cook: I remember getting my ankles taped up and there was the girl [Erb] for NC State that ended up going to the WNBA sitting next to me and her feet were like twice as big as my feet.
Martin: We hung with them for a while, but I remember we just kind of ran out of gas.
McCombs: When you’re playing against a team on their home court in the NCAA Tournament — not to take anything away from them because they did go to the Final Four — it’s tough. It just wasn’t our night.
After the ‘Fab 5’ graduated, YSU had successful seasons the next two years, reaching the NCAA Tournament again in 2000, although losing to Penn State in the first round. Still, the 28-3 record of 1997-1998 remains the best mark of any Penguins basketball team.
Jones: We took in everything Coach D instilled in us since we were freshman and he raised us to be champs. He taught us lessons that transcend into our lives today.
McCombs: We would have done anything for our head coach. We watched him overcome a lot of things, so it made basketball seem small in the grand scheme of things.
Beach: We just kind of had this authentic nature about us. All of us were very real — very ready to play basketball. We lived and breathed basketball and I think that was part of the legacy.
Cook: Even when we go back today, the community and the people remember me and my teammates. It was unbelievable and just a special place that Youngstown will always have in my heart.
DiGregorio: It’s ironic because some of those kids did not get Division I scholarships offered, so they were very fortunate that we saw something in them. We brought them together and it turned out to be a great group. They were hard workers, good students and represented the university in the finest fashion.
Sixteen years later, the 1997-1998 Penguins have naturally gone their separate ways.
Cook is a staffing manager for the Katz, Sapper & Miller accounting firm in Indianapolis. McCombs is an assistant coach on the Auburn University women’s basketball staff.
Jones resides in North Royalton as her son is a top high school basketball prospect. Beach is an English teacher and track coach at Chagrin Falls High School and Martin is a social studies teacher at Austintown-Fitch High School, as well as a Youngstown-area sports official.
You better believe not one of those facts slipped the ageless mind of 87-year-old Coach D, retired and living in Boardman, who never lets his 20-year YSU coaching memories stray too far away.
Especially those of his 1997-1998 team.
“I keep up — they’re all very successful,” DiGregorio said. “All those girls were just, individually, great ladies.”